Tag Archives: at least it’s an ethos

“That’s 400 years on the breasts. Think how boring that would be. At some point. 15 or 20 years in.”

Today was the second half of Vanderbilt’s Saturday University class with Billy Collins, “Under the Hood: The Mechanics of Poetry.” (I wrote about the first half here.)

The bulk of the session was devoted to the kinds of “turns” a poem can take—that is, the developmental moments in a poem which turn our attention. In the first session, he had already talked about the importance of having these turning moments to propel a poem to its ending. He listed these as the types of turns a poet can employ:

  1. Logical or rhetorical turns: For example, in “To His Coy Mistress,” Marvel employs a three-part logical syllogism (major premise, minor premise, conclusion) and the turns are signaled by the words “but” and “therefore.”
  2. Turns in time or space: For example, in “Tintern Abbey” the poet falls into a reverie and remembers, and then when he comes back, the landscape is coloured and informed by his memories. Time and space are provisional in a poem, and we can take advantage of that.
  3. Turn from the abstract to the personal: For example, in “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment,” Eberhart tackles these really broad themes of morality and then in the final stanza turns to two specific soldiers he knew who had died, and it’s the personal details at the end which give the poem its power. Also, e.g. Vijay Seshadri’s “The Long Meadow” and Billy Collins’ “The Death of the Hat.”
  4. Reflexive poems which turn in on themselves: These poems develop a disproportionate interest in some aspect of themselves, eg. Billy Collins’ “Canada” with its obsession with Cherry Ames, or eg. Michael Donaghy’s “The Break,” in which the second stanza (all about the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton) is addressing the simile in the first line (“Like freak Texan sisters joined at the hip”), moving away from the first stanza’s discussion of his failed relationship to go inside the simile (as though, Collins said, walking into a hologram). In these poems, the tenor and vehicle often get switched, such as in Yannis Ritsos’ poetry (“a genius at destabilizing”).
  5. A turn to the present, so that the poem includes its own composition.
  6. A turn to the reader: For example, in “Dulce et Decorum Est” at “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace.”

Then we had a question and answer period. I didn’t take thorough notes on everything he was asked. He talked about sentimentality (which he doesn’t like) and irony (which he does); the poetic line as a unit of sense or a unit of rhythm but having to be a unit of something; the role of rhyme in modern poetry (“What happened was the rhymes invaded the body of the poem…”); and, how you know when you’ve finished the poem (his answer was very vague but I don’t know how anybody could answer that definitively).

I really liked one of his answers, to the question of how you decide what order to put the poems in a book manuscript. He said that he didn’t write with a book theme in mind (“All my poems are thematic in that they’re about me. Me and death.”) so he comes up with connections afterwards. He likes to lay his poems all out on the floor of the largest room in the house (“face up!”) and walk around them barefooted, looking for pairings and connections until he has enough groups of them together to make a book. However, and this was the part I really liked, he said you can also order a book by front-loading all the really excellent poems—putting the best stuff first to get the editor’s attention—and then when they accept it, say, “You know, I’ve had some second thoughts about the order…” Hilarious.

His recommended reading:

  1. Andrew Marvel “To His Coy Mistress
  2. William Wordsworth “Tintern Abbey
  3. Richard Eberhart “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment
  4. Vijay Seshadri “The Long Meadow” (subscribers to The New Yorker can purportedly read it here, and the rest of us can read it in the Collins’ essay “The Vehicle of Language,” also linked at the end of this post)
  5. Billy Collins “The Death of the Hat
  6. Billy Collins “Canada
  7. Michael Donaghy’s “The Break” (sorry, I couldn’t find this online)
  8. Yannis Ritsos “A Myopic Child” and “Miniature
  9. Wilfred Owen “Dulce et Decorum Est
  10. Billy Collins “January in Paris” (he reads it here)
  11. Richard Jones “Wan Chu’s Wife In Bed
  12. Charles Bukowski “8 Count

For more on all of this, try this essay: “The Vehicle of Language,” which must have been written by Billy Collins. Oddly, Lapham’s Quarterly doesn’t specify the author but lists Collins as a tag, but the essay is in the first peom and talks about a “poem of mine” called “Theme,” which is a poem of Collins’, so I’m satisfied he’s the author (but made slightly paranoid by the lack of byline, as though you all might catch me in an error and be all “obviously it’s an essay by this other poet, So-And-So, who also wrote an identical poem called ‘Theme’ good Lord, Joanne, how can you be so dim” or something).

No such things as distractions.

I attended the first half of Vanderbilt’s Saturday University class with Billy Collins, “Under the Hood: The Mechanics of Poetry,” yesterday.

He started with the premise that the process of writing is a series of negotiations between the will of the poet and the waywardness of the poem, and that poets are the kind of people who can’t talk about just one thing at a time.

Here were his tips for how to engender the frame of mind while writing which allows you to surprise yourself and let the poem take an unexpected turn:

  1. Think of the poem’s subject as being entirely provisional. Writing a poem is the opposite of writing an essay; you want to turn away from your original thesis and enter new ground.
  2. A little subject matter goes a long way.
  3. Think of a poem as having its own intelligence, and listen to that. If you really listen, the poem might show signs of boredom, so to keep it happy, you gave to come up with something new.
  4. Distractions are clues. If you find yourself being distracted by something as you write, put it in the poem.
  5. Think of the poem as having a present, as opposed to being a recounting of past experience. For the reader, the poem is taking place as it’s read.
  6. Be willing to dispense with fidelity to what really happened. Take advantage of the imaginative freedom that poetry offers. Sometimes you have to make things up to get at the truth.

His recommended reading:

  1. Richard Hugo “The Triggering Town
  2. Shakespeare “That time of year thou may’st in me behold” (discussion of which led to a lengthy aside about sonnets being essentially having something to say, and having something to say about what you had to say, that is, suffering a moment of self-consciousness in those final two lines)
  3. Matthew Arnold “Dover Beach
  4. Billy Collins “The Trouble With Poetry” and “Poetry, Pleasure and the Hedonistic Reader” (I can find neither of these online; sorry.)
  5. Ruth L. Schwartz “The Swan in Edgewater Park” (if you read only one of his suggestions, read this one.)
  6. Stephen Dobyns new book about poetry (which he quoted from, on enjambment, essentially saying unusual enjambments should have a purpose), presumably Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, though I haven’t read it so I can’t confirm that.
  7. Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays” (also)

Edited to add: summary of second half.

Some of them, often the best of them, will go undercover—wear suits and carry briefcases, returning to their writing desk only after the sun has gone down and the city has gone to sleep.

Last Sunday I went to see Reverend Father Ernesto Cardenal Martínez read at Vanderbilt. I don’t speak Spanish, so I had to rely on the translations, which is always a bit dodgy with poetry. If you watch the video linked above, you’ll see he read a number of poems including “Gazing at the Stars with Martie” (not sure I have the name of his friend right), “White Holes,” “On the Banks of the Ohio in Kentucky,” “The Cell Phone” and “The Origin of the Species,” after which his latest book is named. The video is worth listening to – don’t know if it’s worth watching, so you could probably just minimize it and multitask. Best line (from memory): “The canonization of John Paul II goes against Darwin’s theory. It is not an evolution but a retrogression.”

In other news, this week was administrative professional’s day, which is what they’re calling secretary’s day now that we’ve collectively decided that “secretary” is demeaning (news in 2020: “administrative professional” now considered demeaning). In honour of my extreme awesomeness, my boss-doctors at the hospital got me a gift card to an online bookstore which shall remain nameless in a pointless attempt not to increase their market share. I got almost everything on my wishlist, and the bulk of it arrived today, including After the Ark by Luke Johnson, who is one of my P&W Speakeasy peeps as well as being a tremendous poet. Plus I got Turko’s Book of Forms, which I’ve been coveting for awhile, and a bunch of Robin McKinley (fantasy) and Jennifer Crusie (romance) books, and Joey Comeau’s One Bloody Thing After Another, which I finished yesterday and which is really fantastic and disturbing, as you might guess from the lesbian young adult romance vs chained-up monster mother plot synopsis.

so try as you will/you cannot make me feel/embarrassment//at what I find beautiful – Frank Bidart

I went to see Ciarán Carson with Peg and Declan last week, and Frank Bidart with them this week, both as part of the Vanderbilt Visiting Writers series. 

Ciarán Carson is a poet from Belfast who I think is chiefly famous for writing about the troubles there, but my favourite poetry of his is the stuff about his wife. He read extensively from Until Before After, which is tremendous – very minimal, stripped down (stripped raw, really), all about a time when his wife was in hospital for a serious illness. (The Guardian has some excerpts in their review, and Poetry Daily has posted three of his poems from On the Night Watch, another of his recent books.)

He started the reading by playing on a tin flute (he’s also a musician and an expert on Irish music), which was a lovely way to ease into his devastating poems.

After,  Alice Quinn (Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America) interviewed him. (They taped it, but I can’t find it online.) He said two things I thought were especially fabulous: “Everything that’s important in life happens in small back rooms.” and “In order to title a poem, you have to know what it means and not be bluffing.” Ha.

Frank Bidart read some shorter poems, including a sestina (“it’s my only sestina; it will be my only sestina – I feel lucky to have escaped with my neck”) and a very long poem about Giselle (“Ulanova at Forty-Six At Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle”), during which I fell asleep. In fairness to Bidart, I was working on a substantial sleep deficit and the reading was in one of those university lecture halls seemingly designed to sedate students. Long-time readers may remember that I saw the Winnipeg ballet perform Giselle during my cross-Canada trip in 2001, but it didn’t help me understand the poem, which combined several speakers with a meditation on the writing of the poem itself, as far as I could tell. I do much better with poetry on the page when it’s as convoluted as this. 

I was frustrated with the reading, because I felt stupid; this isn’t entirely Bidart’s fault – he’s obviously a genius, and he expected the audience to be as well, and, alas, I am not. I find his poetry distancing and cold, completely aside from its difficulty. I think he’s doing something (modernist, allusive), that I’m just not interested in. I wish he’d read “Marilyn Monroe,” the opening lines of which are quoted in this Boston Review review, or some of his other, more approachable poems.

I really liked some of the things he said in the question-and-answer period though: “punctuation has to do with the body the words make on the page” and “I think I believe in the aesthetics that the body makes.” I think I believe in that too. 

While I was writing this, I spilled tomato soup all over my desk. THIS IS WHY I CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS. (/dramaqueen)

I got my contributors’ copy (contributor’s copy? where does the apostrophe go? there’s only one of me, but many contributors…) of the November issue of Scifaikuest, which contains my scifaiku “autumn visit.”

I also just ran across this listing of Metafilter authors, which includes me. I’m internet famous!

I am also pretty sick. I probably caught this from somebody at the hospital where I work, where it’s going around. I’m all achy and tired and throatsore and have been drinking hot lemonade like it’s a miracle cure. I have a whole panoply of things I pretty much only consume when sick, which include: gingerbread cake, ginger ale (Canada Dry for preference), tomato soup, chicken noodle soup and hot lemonade. Alan kindly got me all of those things last night, except the gingerbread cake which Kroger of course doesn’t carry. I will have to make some if I want some, unless one of my kind readers knows where in Nashville it can be purchased.

I question the efficacy of this statistical analysis tool.

(via) Pasting in the first half of “Sundowning” got me Margaret Atwood.
Swan Song” gets Chuck Palahniuk.
This Wallace Stevens homage gets J.K. Rowling. Hmm.

Oscar Wilde writes like Oscar Wilde.
P. G. Wodehouse writes like P. G. Wodehouse.
H. D. writes like Ursula K. Le Guin.
Ursula K. Le Guin writes like Stephen King.
Stephen King writes like Stephen King.
James Joyce writes like James Joyce.
T. S. Eliot also writes like James Joyce.
Emily Dickinson writes like Arthur Conan Doyle.
Arthur Conan Doyle writes like Daniel Defoe.
Daniel Defoe writes like Johathan Swift (sic).
Jonathan Swift also writes like Johathan Swift (sic).

Well As long as that’s settled.

I desperately want to quote The Big Lebowski but can’t decide which quote to use.

“The Supreme Court threw out a 63-year-old law designed to restrain the influence of big business and unions on elections Thursday, ruling that corporations may spend as freely as they like to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress.” (via)